Tomes From the Olden Times: The Boyfriend…

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Today’s Tomes from the Olden Times is really a TBR Friday post in disguise because I plucked The Boyfriend by R. L. Stine right off my TBR shelf after having had it sit there for an indeterminate amount of time (more than one year but less than three).  I can’t even remember exactly where I got it from, save that it is a second hand copy – it either came from a jaunt to the Lifeline Bookfest or from the Library cast-off shop at Nundah.

Even though this is a Tomes from the Olden Times post – the book having been originally published in 1990 as part of the Point Horror series of YA books – I’m not entirely sure, even after reading it, whether or not I did actually read this one way back when.  I certainly read others of the series, Beach Party,  along with Beach House, being two I am 100% certain I read, while the covers of Hit and Run, The Baby Sitter and April Fools all look very familiar and were no doubt passed around the class during the height of the horror-reading frenzy of ages past.

Anyway, back to The Boyfriend.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Sometimes, love is murder.

Too bad about Dex. He was in love with Joanna. She broke up with him. And then he died.

Joanna’s sorry, of course. But it’s not her fault he’s dead, is it? Besides, she never loved him. Boys are just toys, to be used and thrown away.

But this time, Joanna’s gone too far. Because Dex is back. From the dead. For one last date with her….

the-boyfriend

Now doesn’t that bring back memories of flimsy paperbacks with tiny print?  This story turned out to be exactly what you probably think it would be judging by the cover and blurb.  I still can’t figure out whether or not I read it all those years ago, but on the whole I think I must have because I remember the name Shep as well, bizarrely, as the scenes featuring Joanna practicing with her tennis coaches.  I could not, however, remember any of the “horror” elements.

This is probably a good thing, because they weren’t all that horrifying really.  I remember being irrationally terrified of the events of Beach House back as a young gargoyle, but I can’t imagine that this one ever scared me that much, if in fact I did read it as a youngster.  If you picture all those celluloid teen slasher films like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream, than you’ll have a pretty good idea how this story turns out, although there is a lot less violence, which surprised me.

Joanna is a right piece of work – selfish, horrid to her mother and generally a bad seed – and she discovers toward the end that the undead appreciate a little acknowledgement during their living years, otherwise they might just come back with a vengeance.

The best thing I can say about this one is that it was a quick read.  Nothing particularly unexpected happens, there are no shocking horror bits and generally this can be considered a fun, no-brainer of a read for when you want to escape.

I’d love to get hold of Beach House again though and see if it actually is scary.  Even a little bit!

Did you read any of these books as a youngster?  What did you think of them?

I’m submitting The Boyfriend for my Mount TBR Reading Challenge for 2017.  You can check out my progress toward my challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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Tomes from the Olden Times: Encyclopedia Brown…

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I have come to the conclusion that I am lagging so far behind on my review schedule that I might as well throw in the towel and bring you a Tomes from the Olden Times post instead.  Time seems to be getting away from me this month, and although I’ve read a bunch of the books I need to read, I don’t seem to be getting the time to post.  I will do my best to rectify this as soon as is gargoylely possible.

Some months ago now, someone, on some blog, somewhere, mentioned the Encyclopedia Brown books and I just knew I had to revisit them in a TftOT post.  (Actually, I’ve just had a search and it was a post on Sunlit Pages that brought these books to my renewed attention).  As far as I know, Encyclopedia Brown wasn’t a big thing in Australia and I can’t remember how I originally stumbled across the books as a youngster…probably the library had something to do with it…and I think I only read two of the fifteen plus titles in the series, but when the post from Sunlit Pages reminded me of the interesting formatting of the stories, I just knew I had to hunt the books down and see what memories surfaced.

I managed to order the first in the series, Encyclopedia Brown: Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol from the Book Depository and promptly let it sit on the TBR shelf until I noticed how thin it was and decided I could knock it over in half an hour or so.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Leroy Brown, aka Encyclopedia Brown, is Idaville neighborhood’s ten-year-old star detective. With an uncanny knack for trivia, he solves mysteries for the neighborhood kids through his own detective agency. But his dad also happens to be the chief of the Idaville police department, and every night around the dinner table, Encyclopedia helps him solve his most baffling crimes. And with ten confounding mysteries in each book, not only does Encyclopedia have a chance to solve them, but the reader is given all the clues as well. Interactive and chock full of interesting bits of information—it’s classic Encyclopedia Brown!

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In case you haven’t come across these books before, they are set out like a book of short stories – the case of the missing this, the case of the mysterious that – but with one fun twist.  Each story ends on a cliffhanger, with Encyclopedia claiming he has solved the case…but leaving the reader to figure out the solution for themselves!  The solutions for each case are provided at the back of the book and I distinctly remember spending most of my time flicking through to the back to figure out the answer, back in the day.  Happily, this time around I was able to solve all but one of the mysteries on my own (take THAT, mystery book for children!!), but I can certainly see why I found this book frustrating as a young reader.

For a start, the book is constrained by its now-historical (1960s) setting as well as the fact that it is set in America and at least one of the mysteries requires a little bit of American history knowledge (although admittedly, the mystery can be solved without that tidbit of information).  Also, some of the cases involve knowledge and life experience that kids just might not have, but were blindingly obvious to me as an adult (or perhaps my subconscious just remembered the answers from when I read it the first time around!).  The Case of the Happy Nephew, for instance, requires a bit of knowledge about cars, while The Case of the Champion Egg Spinner requires knowledge about cooking – both of which may have been perfectly common pieces of information in the ’60s, but might not be so common to child readers of the 20teens.

I quite enjoyed the fact that it felt like Idaville was a hot-bed of crime, with Encyclopedia’s services in demand around every corner.  There was something charming and endearing about revisiting a character and series that hasn’t been updated for modern readers and sits as a perfect snapshot of kids of the time period, with not a screen or online message in sight.  I think today’s young readers would get a definite kick out of Encyclopedia’s escapades, because they really require the reader to think and observe and watch out for those hidden clues.  Then again, there’s always the fun of skipping ahead to the solutions and then proclaiming, “That’s what I thought.  I knew that.”

Until next time,

Bruce

A Utopirama from the Olden Times: Star Teacher

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Welcome to Utopirama, the place where I suggest books that are guaranteed to uplift the heart or, at the very least, not make you feel any worse than you did before you read them. The point of Utopirama posts is to highlight cosy reads across all genres that are perfect for those times when you need to retreat from the horrors of the world and escape to gentler place. Today’s selection fulfils this brief perfectly and also has the honour of being part of a series from my olden times. In fact, the earlier titles in this series of books can make the amazing claim of being the very first and second entries in my Book Depository wishlist, which now, ridiculously, boasts over 1200 individual titles.

Our book today is Star Teacher, the ninth in Jack Sheffield’s Teacher series, set in quaint Yorkshire village Ragley-on-the-Forest. When this popped up on Netgalley I was stunned to see that this was book nine – I stopped reading after book four, having skipped book three (and all subsequent instalments) due to the fact that our local library system didn’t have them (and I’m a cheapskate and therefore couldn’t possibly buy them). And all of a sudden, here was book nine!

That’s enough of my reminiscing though. Let’s get on with it. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

It’s 1985, and as Jack returns for another year as headteacher at Ragley village school, some changes are in store. It’s the year of Halley’s Comet, Band Aid, Trivial Pursuit, Dynasty shoulder pads, Roland Rat and Microsoft Windows. And at Ragley-on-the-Forest, Heathcliffe Earnshaw decides to enter the village scarecrow competition, Ruby the caretaker finds romance, and retirement looms for Vera the secretary.

star teacher

Quick Overview:

The wonderful thing about this series (and series similar to it, of which there are many) is that you can stop reading at some point, pick up the lastest release some six or seven (or more) years later and absolutely nothing of substance has changed. It’s a bit like those long-running American soap operas – they of the drawn-out, moody stares and soft filtered lighting – except with fewer fake tans and a Northern accent. I came back to Jack’s life after a significant leave of absence to find things pretty much as they were in Ragley, albeit with a new baby in residence and having finally discovered which of the sisters he was keen on that he actually married.

That’s one of the interesting things about this book – while absolutely nothing of note happens throughout the preceding 200+ pages, the books always finish on a cliffhanger, usually relating to the problem that initially prompted you to pick up the book in the first place. For example, the last book that I read in the series finished on the cliffhanger of Jack making up his mind which sister he was going to pursue. This one, of course, leaves us hanging in the balance while the author strings us along, hoping we’ll buy the next book to find out whether Jack gets to remain as head teacher of Ragley village school.

The other utopiramic thing about the series is the continued references to current events, fashions and developments of the particular year in which each book is set. For example, Star Teacher is set over 1985 and 1986 so you can expect lots of mentions of the new technology of the era (the Commodore 128 computer for example!) and big events of that time (the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, for instance). I always find these references a great comfort, because while the characters are in various states of worry about such things, I, as a citizen of the future, can relax in the knowledge that I know how it all turned out.

As a Utopirama pick, you can’t go past the Teacher series, mainly because absolutely nothing painful, shocking or uncomfortable ever happens. This really is a series revolving around caricatures of the population of a small Yorkshire village (complete with phonetically rendered accents) and the head teacher of its school. On the flipside, of course, is the chance that things can get a bit tedious, because nothing painful, shocking or uncomfortable ever happens. I found that this instalment felt a bit tedious to me – although I will always go back to this series for those times when I need safe, escapist read. Provided the library has a copy of course.

Utopian Themes

Escape to the country

The carefree days of youth

Circle of friends

80s nostalgia

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

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4 out of 5 bubbles for the unsurpassed serenity of a ruminant beast supremely unconcerned with the problems of humanity

Until next time,

Bruce

Tomes from the Olden Times: The Third Form at St. Clare’s…

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So today’s Tomes from the Olden Times – the feature in which I re-read a book from my ancient past and pass on some insightfully insightful insights into the experience – has gone off the rails a little bit.   The reason for this will become apparent as you read on. I did intend for this to be the crème de la crème of Tomes of the Olden Times posts; a real ripper that shot you straight back to childhood and in a way, that could still happen. It did for me while I read this offering. And afterwards, it has left me wondering if I don’t have some kind of early onset senility. But anyway, on with the show!

Today’s tome is The Third Form at St. Clare’s, part of Enid Blyton’s wildly popular boarding school stories (the other of course being Malory Towers, in which I also indulged long ago), featuring twins Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan as the main players. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The holidays are over and twins Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan are dying to get back to school. The big question on everybody’s lips is, who will be head girl? But a terrible accident and an hilarious school play show the true leaders in the third form, but they also show up the cheats and cowards.

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Sounds like a typical Enid Blyton adventure, right? Well, my friend, I thought so too. But herein lies the confusion. This title is, in fact, NOT part of the original series, but an add-on penned by Pamela Cox as a way to flesh out the original Blyton series.

Shocked?

So was I. Not so much by the fact that another writer had been called in to modernise Blyton’s work, but by the fact that I would have sworn blind that I had read this book as a kid. And yet I couldn’t have, because it was written in 2000. This was the bit that had me scratching my head and trying to remember the number for the Alzheimer’s hotline. As I was reading this story, I even deluded myself that I knew how it was going to turn out (due, of course, to my incredible ability to recall children’s literature). I predicted correctly, but I suspect that this was because the story follows the expected Blyton formula, rather than the fact that I had read it before (which I obviously hadn’t).

Confused yet?

Yes, me too. So it turns out, on further research, that for some reason Blyton didn’t stick to the one-book-per-year formula found in most boarding school series (including her own) for the girls of St. Clare’s but instead wrote three first form stories, one second form story, skipped third form altogether, wrote one apiece for forms four and five and left sixth form out. Cox was brought in around the time of the series’ latest re-release to pen tales for the missing form years and it was one of these gap-fillers that I managed to pick up in my search for a blast from the past.

On the surface, everything appears as it should be. All the familiar characters are there, including wild circus gypsy girl Carlotta (who was a favourite of mine back in the day) and the book obviously reads enough like a Blyton to have tricked me into thinking I had already read it. There are a few little signs along the way that the story has been brought into the new millennium, with mention of coffee shops (Egad! Surely tea is the only reputable beverage in an English boarding school!) and a few turns of phrase that didn’t ring quite true to the old stories. There are also the old favourite plotlines of practical jokes, midnight feasts and sending people to Coventry.

I did feel that the retribution of the girls toward one particular wrong-doer in the story read entirely differently in a contemporary setting though. As the entire form decide to punish a girl for her underhanded behaviour by sending her to Coventry (ie: completely ignoring her and actively excluding her from membership of the form group), I did get a strange sense that this scene might come off seeming far more sinister to modern-day youngsters than Cox might have bargained for. As a youngster, when I had read such a scene in Blyton’s works, I’m sure I didn’t bat an eyelid and probably cheered along at such justice being done to an obviously guilty party but on reading it with the current social climate in mind, the scene felt uncomfortably like mass cyberbullying of the sort that sends young people to mental health wards or, in some tragic cases, suicide. It’s probably lucky that the St. Clare’s girls didn’t have access to social media or things could have gotten completely out of hand.

Overall, I think Cox has done an admirable job in penning a story that could slot right into the series without a second thought and young contemporary readers discovering Blyton’s school stories for the first time will no doubt be thankful that the series has been given these additions.

As a “Tomes from the Olden Times” pick, this turned out to be an incredibly disorienting experience. I feel mildly cheated that I haven’t actually re-read a St. Clare’s book and so now I have to go and seek out another one (although I suspect I’ll jump ship back to Malory Towers – you know where you are with the Malory Towers girls).

I’d love to know from any of you though: What are your favourite St. Clare’s moments? And have you read any of Cox’s new additions? What did you think?

Until next time,

Bruce

Scaling Mount TBR: The Whitby Witches…

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Thank you for joining me as I claw my way up the teetering goliath that is my current TBR pile. Today’s book is one I picked up second-hand after having placed it on my wish-list very soon after Mad Martha returned from a memorable sojourn to the seaside town of Whitby in the UK, declaring that we should now search out and read every book ever written with Whitby as a setting. And there have been a lot. Although we still haven’t read the most famous by far.

Here’s a picture of Mad Martha enjoying the B&B in which she stayed. If you squint, you can just see a bit of the Abbey in the distance out the window:

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And here she is enjoying a long-awaited wash in the Whitby Laundromat washing machine:

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And just for fun, here’s one of the Abbey that looks like it’s screeeeeeeaaaaammmming!

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But I digress. Today’s book is The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis, a rollicking and surprisingly dark (in places) tale that was first published in 1991, although it has the ring of a book published much earlier. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

At first glance, the small seaside town of Whitby seems quiet and charming, but eight year-old Ben and his older sister Jennet soon learn that things are not always as they seem. Moved about from foster home to foster home, Ben and Jennet hope to make a fresh start in Whitby. But Ben sees things and people others cannot. There’s something unusual about Alice Boston, their new guardian. And what is that horrible howling Jennet hears late at night? Something wicked’s brewing in Whitby. Can Ben and Jennet put it to rest?

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This was an unexpected reading experience for me because there was just so much story packed into the pages. There are the witches and witchiness of the title of course, but then there are fantastical creatures, an ongoing (and progressively more deadly) murder investigation, a strange nun that might not be what she seems, an ancient curse, pregnant cats, as well as an astoundingly action-packed climax that features time-travel along with everything else.

And does anyone else think that Alice Boston bears a striking resemblance to one of the TV versions of Miss Marple??

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Extraordinary!

So I didn’t expect there to be quite so much going on in this book, but I really appreciated how the author gives the young reader enough credit to put in some pretty creepy content. For a start, there’s the terrifying hound on the cover of this edition. Then there’s quite a lot of violence directed towards old ladies. I was genuinely surprised at a few points that Jarvis was brave enough to pen the deaths of the aforementioned old ladies in such vivid, atmospheric detail.  Actually, now that I think about it, there are a number of scenes that had me thinking, “Oh, that’s a bit shocking!” and this disposed me fondly toward the author for having the gumption to trust that younger readers can handle some grisly, scary stuff and come out the other side unscathed. I suspect this is why the book felt like one that was published before the 90s, because there doesn’t seem to be any coddling through the difficult bits.

Overall, this is one of those stories that has all the classic elements – abandoned siblings, a setting oozing with its own character and history, mysterious magic and just plain, unadulterated adventure! As this is part of a series, I will now add the others in the set to my ever-growing TBR pile and hopefully get to them in the not-too-distant future.

I recommend The Whitby Witches to anyone (especially mini-fleshlings of the upper middle-grade persuasion) looking for good old-fashioned feats of danger and derring-do.

Until next time,

Bruce

Tomes from the Olden Times: Grandad’s Gifts…

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image Welcome, young and old to Tomes of the Olden Times, the feature in which I discuss books that I particularly remember from times long past.  Today’s gem is an exquisite short story/long picture book from that genius of Australian short-storytelling for children, Mr Paul Jennings.  If you have never read anything by Paul Jennings, you are doing yourself a grave disservice.  Go and correct this at once. No, actually, wait until you’ve read this post, THEN go and correct this in a timely fashion. Today I wish to discuss Grandad’s Gifts, written by Jennings, hauntingly illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe and first published in picture book form in 1990.  That’s 25 years ago folks. Yep, it makes me feel old too. The book tells the short but spook-laden tale of Shane, a young lad who moves with his family to live in the house of his late grandfather.  While there, Shane opens a forbidden cupboard, uncovers a long-hidden secret and sets about righting a wrong in his family history.  Here’s the (rather spoiler-filled) blurb from Goodreads: This is a chilling picture book with a twist in the tail, as Paul slowly brings a fox back to life by feeding its fur with lemons from the tree above its grave. But it’s the lemons above Paul’s grandfather’s grave that give the fox its final gift, sight… grandads gifts When Grandad’s Gifts suddenly popped back into my consciousness many moons after first encountering it, I couldn’t believe that I had forgotten about it for so long.  I immediately tried to hunt it down but had a great deal of trouble finding it in print.  Then, one glorious day, as I was rifling through some second-hand library books I spotted it.  Not the cover that I remembered, but still, that title and that author and I knew I had found it.  And pretty darn pleased about my little score I was too. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what makes this story so mystical and memory-worthy, but I can assure you that it is one of those special books that you really should endeavour to get your hands on.  Trust me on this. When first I was introduced to this story, in a classroom setting, I remember being stunned by the …well, stunning…illustrations.  So realistic, so engaging, so erring on the side of the magical in the realm of magical realism.  Here’s one:  image And here’s another: imageAnd one more, for luck:

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Boo! That one got you in, didn’t it?!

I think the realism of the artwork really gave this story its spook-factor.  There is something haunting about these pictures that embeds itself in the memory and brings the story right off the pages.  They are the perfect accompaniment to Jennings’ particular brand of quirky strangeness.  Any young Australian worth their salt (and any Australian teacher worth theirs) would be familiar with the hilarious and weird short stories of Paul Jennings.  Some of these, notably his Round the Twist stories,  were later turned into a television series, whose theme song will no doubt still be stuck in the heads of some.  *Mentally sings: Have you ever…ever felt like this? When strange things happen, are you goin’ round the twist?*

Apart from being deliciously creepy though, the book is also remarkably touching, as we get carried along with Shane’s mission to free his furry, cupboard-strewn friend.  This is one of those stories that proves the power of story-telling – it’s one I did actually forget about for a period of time, but once I remembered it, the experience of first hearing it came back in vivid detail from the depths of decades past.

I would highly, highly recommend hunting this book down if you can and reading it with any kids in your vicinity aged around seven or older.

Until next time,

Bruce  

Tomes from the Olden Times: Heaven Cent…

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Afternoon there intrepid book-wranglers!  It’s about time I delved back into those books I read as a youngster, into the books that have shaped my reading journey.  I used to call this spot “Retro Reading” but as other blogs are using that title, I’ve decided to rebrand my nostalgic wanderings as (cue deep, booming voice) “Tomes from the Olden Times”.  The image above is particularly relevant for today’s pick, because it features an animated skeleton.  Animated as in sentient and capable of movement, not animated as in cartoonish. Although…

Allow me, if you haven’t already made its acquaintance, to introduce you to the Xanth series, by shelf-bracingly prolific author Piers Anthony.  The series (one of many….and I mean MANY) series that Anthony has authored, features the magical world of Xanth, that lies in geographically the same area as our Florida, but is entirely separate from it.  One of the main features of Xanth (apart from its magicality) is its fondness for punnery.  Puns abound.  They’re everywhere.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at the title of the first Xanth book (indeed the first Piers Anthony book) I ever encountered:

Heaven Cent

Heaven Cent is book number eleven in the Xanth series.  Why did I start with eleven? Your guess is as good as mine.  Perhaps I was eleven when I first picked it up.  Regardless, this book follows nine year old Prince Dolph as he sets out on a quest to find the missing Good Magician Humphrey, chaperoned by the aforementioned animated skeleton, Marrow Bones.  If you are wondering who these characters might be and how they fit into the world, I can assure you that in all honesty, it really doesn’t matter.  As I said, I started with book eleven, and I followed the story just fine.  Dolph and Marrow encounter various challenges along the way, including that of Dolph becoming betrothed to two girls simulataneously and everything ends happily (as, I was to find out later, often happens in the land of Xanth).

I particularly chose this book as a Tome of the Olden Times because it is chock full of puns and obvious humour and a pretty basic storyline.  I had loved this series as a kid, but I could simply not imagine how an adult could stick with such a book for 300 plus pages, let alone do this repeatedly over a VERY long running series.  So I was very interested to see what my feelings were for this pivotal childhood book as an adult.

The long and short of it is….it held up okay.  Admittedly, I read this story multiple times as a kid, so it was like revisiting an old friend.  Weirdly though, there was nothing more that I got out of it as an adult than I had as a kid.  There were no jokes that I discovered anew that had gone over my head as a younger reader, no insightful twists that I had blithely skimmed over in childish innocence.  Essentially, I felt that while I had grown and matured over the years, the book was exactly the same read for me now, as it was then.  I did not expect this turn of events, but in some ways it’s kind of reassuring.  The book (and the whole series really) would make great candidates for my Utopirama reviews, in that nothing truly bad ever happens and things always right themselves in the end.  In that regard, the Xanth series would be a great choice for those times when you want something light on drama, and heavy on fantasy and punny humour.

A word of warning however.  I read a lot of Piers Anthony as a kid, and as an adult, I have come to the conclusion that he must be a bit of an oddbod.  While Xanth is pretty harmless, there are plenty of other books of his that are spectacularly inappropriate for children (but I read them anyway…why? Who knows).  I remember absolutely LOVING his Mode series (which I’ve since found out has continued past the last book I read many years ago) as a young teen and it features suicidal ideation, self harm, a very dubious romantic relationship clearly involving a minor and a whole lot of other guff that really, I probably shouldn’t have been reading at that age.  I suspect that should I pick that one up again as an adult, there would be plenty of new and interesting material that my kid-brain missed the first time around.  I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a good thing. I’ll let you know if I decide to give it a second airing.

So if you’re looking for light and fluffy, stick with Xanth.  If you’re looking for hot and heavy, Mr Anthony can furnish you with some of those sort of tomes also.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from any of you who have read these books, to find out what you think of them!

Until next time,

Bruce

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